Death by a thousand cuts

A post-Prop. 123 election poll showed 74% of Arizonans support even more funding for our public schools. This, even though I suspect most of the general public has little idea about ALL the “death by a thousand cuts” our public school districts are experiencing. One of those amounts to an estimated loss of about $33 million statewide. In effect, districts will not be paid for the 2015-2016 school year due to the transition from prior-year, to current-year funding and in many cases it basically wipes out the gains districts made from Prop. 123.

Even as the voters “giveth” again via Prop. 123, the Legislature taketh away with the move last year to change the how “student count” is determined. Prior to the law change, district budgets were calculated using the 100th day average daily membership (ADM) count from the prior year. Now, districts are forced to base their budgets on an estimated number of students for the current year before school starts. Budgets are then adjusted during the year to reflect actual student enrollment. Unfortunately these adjustments are just on paper; they don’t fix the funding problem districts must then live with. If they overestimate, they’ll overspend their budgets and have state aid reduced times two the amount overspent. If they underestimate, they won’t have sufficient funding to operate for the current year. Either way, being forced to guess on student count can mean hiring freezes, delays in discretionary expenditures, postponing payments to vendors, teacher lay offs, and ultimately, the district being placed into receivership if they fail to create a solid repayment plan.

The difference to district budgets can be substantial. Balsz Unified for example, could see a $1 million reduction in their budget for 2017/2018. For TUSD, the estimated impact is $4.5 million. In addition to the resulting operational constraints, current year funding also impacts district ability to garner override and bond funds. AZCentral.com reported that if current-year funding had been the law in 2015 when Gilbert Public Schools passed their 10% override, the amount generated would have been about $300,000 less. Another consequence of the probable deficits or surpluses in ending-year cash balances is tax rates that may fluctuate drastically from one year.” That will surely please taxpayers, especially our retirees on a fixed income. Guess what block of voters are the most consistent in voting? Anyone? Anyone?…Bueller?

It is interesting that we’ve gone down this road, since we’ve traveled it before. In 1980, districts were allowed to build budgets with current year or prior year students counts. The process was changed because districts got in trouble with estimating student counts. They overspent budget capacities and miscalculated tax rates. School business officials and administrators are asking if it was a bad idea then, why is it a good idea now?

Bottom line is, it isn’t. Arizona is experiencing a critical shortage of teachers, especially highly effective ones, with many districts having numerous unfilled positions. This means substitutes are in many classrooms, classes are combined, or class sizes are larger than ever. Where there are teachers, their inexperience or turnover can have an impact on the achievement of students, especially for those in low-income and low-performing schools as well as at-risk students. Potentially exacerbating the situation, districts may be forced to (as ARS 14-544 allows) eliminate certificated teachers “to effectuate economies in the operation of the district or to improve the efficient conduct and administration of the schools of the school district.”

The projected savings from the change to current year funding is one-time and the model increases administrative burdens at a time when school districts are being directed to reduce administrative costs. It also comes when District Additional Assistance (used for soft capital costs such as classroom materials and supplies and capital funding such as facility maintenance, busses and technology) was estimated to be reduced by over $381 million. The perfect storm conditions were then made complete with the Arizona Department of Education’s transition to a new data collection system called AzEDS.

So why did the Legislature change the law? One anonymous source told me the Arizona Tax Research Association (ATRA), represented by their former Senior Research Analyst Justin Olson, pushed the change. In a February 2008 paper, ATRA advocated for: 1) moving from the “prior year plus growth” to current year funding to ensure districts are not paid for students who are now enrolled elsewhere, 2) ensuring districts student growth reports are legitimate and 3) eliminating or reduce rapid decline funding. Unfortunately, as a Prescott Schools Current Year Funding Concerns paper points out, “Current year funding will create unpredictability in ADM (average daily membership or student count), resulting in cash deficits or significant positive cash balances.” Yes, some districts experiencing student growth may receive additional funding, but it is largely offset by unpredictability that is counter-productive to employee morale.

 If the way student counts were determined was the problem, why aren’t current year numbers used for all school funding formulas? Chuck Essigs, Executive Director of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials) writes that “only the Base Support Level for both school districts and Joint Technical Education Districts will be based upon current year count,” the largest component in determining state aid and budget capacity. Other school funding components that use student count in the formulas are the Classroom Site Fund, Instructional Improvement Fund, small school exemption, tuition calculations and more.

Color me cynical, but it would appear this move is just one more step toward education privatization by the Arizona Legislature. The narrative goes like this: 1) decrease funding to district schools to make it harder for them to succeed, 2) introduce more instability to district school funding to make it harder for them to attract and retain the best teachers and 3) refuse to hold commercial schools (for-profit charters and private) to the same level of accountability and transparency to help them look better.

Want to change the narrative to one that works for 85% of Arizona’s children? Sure you do and, you know how. Let your vote be your voice on November 8th. Vote only for pro-public DISTRICT education candidates. They, like pro-district public education advocates, won’t kill charters, we recognize they have their place. We just don’t think it should be first place. What they will do, is ensure the priority for funding and support is on our district schools…the only schools that accept all students, are governed by locally elected school board members (your neighbors), are fully transparent, and are fully accountable for the taxpayer dollar!

In Defense of Full-Day K

One of the topics of discussion at the recent Arizona State Board of Education was the need for full day kindergarten. The minutes of the meeting report that Phil Francis, CEO of Petsmart, “gave a presentation about the importance of full day kindergarten as a grade and the efforts to bring this to Arizona. The intention of the group, comprised of business leaders, legislators and parents, is to make kindergarten a grade with rigor, requirements, accountability and benchmarks.” Arizona State Senator Steve Smith also spoke at the meeting “as a parent and as a legislator in support of this initiative.” He said “his goal is to first find out if this is something that Arizona wants and then the legislature will find money during the budget process.”

I have several issues with both their comments. First of all, there is no research data that shows kindergarten should be “a grade with rigor, requirements, accountability and benchmarks.” In fact, Finland (generally considered the best school system in the world), does not even start their children in school until they are seven years old. Numerous studies show young children need time to play and that putting too much pressure on our youngest students may cause them to miss out on other critical development and lose a love of learning.

Secondly, I am suspect whenever Senator Steve Smith appears to support something good for public education. According to the Friends of ASBA (Arizona School Boards Association) annual legislator report card, Smith only voted for our district schools and their students half of the time last year and that was better than previous years. He has consistently been a proponent of school choice and the diversion of taxpayer public education monies to private and religious schools via vouchers. Call me cynical, but if Smith is in favor of restoring the funding to full day kindergarten, there’s profit to be made by commercial schools. Further Empowerment Scholarship Account (vouchers) expansion anyone?

The meeting minutes also stated that Lisa Fink, founder of Adams Traditional Academy, spoke against the initiative saying that “many of the gains of full day k are gone by the second grade. I’m not sure what research Fink is using, but I can point to plenty that shows her conclusion is incorrect. A 2004 National Center for Education Statistics longitudinal study showed a 32 percent gain in reading and 22 percent gain in math achievement for kindergarten students in full-day programs versus half-day. A more recent study (2014) showed a sizable learning advantage for full-day students. For Hispanic full-day kindergarteners, the advantage was nearly twice that of Hispanic half-day students. In a study of over 17,000 students in Philadelphia, researchers found that “by the time they reached the third and fourth grades, former full-day kindergarteners were… 26 percent more likely than graduates of half-day programs—to have made it there without having repeated a grade.”  The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Center says the advantages of full-day kindergarten include: higher long-term achievement, fewer grade retentions, higher self-esteem and independence, and greater creativity.

Where the gains have been less than obvious, it is likely due to outside factors. In 2008, another early childhood longitudinal study found that full-day students were statistically more likely to live below the poverty line and be of low birth weight and have unmarried parents who did not pursue education beyond high school. That is why researchers such as Chloe Gibbs at the University of Virginia, used students in her 2014 study who had a lottery to allocate full-day kindergarten slots, thus ensuring a random sampling. She concluded that full-day kindergarten produces greater learning gains per dollar spent than other well know early education interventions (such as Head Start and class size reductions.) It not only ensured all students did better, it also closed the literacy achievement gap between Hispanic and other students by 70 percent. This is important for several reasons. First of all, Hispanics are now the majority/minority in our Arizona’s district schools. Secondly, their achievement levels on the latest AzMERIT tests are lower than that of their white counterparts. Thirdly, Dr. Rottweiler, reminded the Board that “the same year we created move on when reading to increase literacy scores, we cut the funding to full day kindergarten.” In other words, at the same time the Legislature cut funding for full-day kindergarten, they enacted a law to hold students back who couldn’t read adequately by the third grade. Talk about tying the students legs together and then asking them to run….

Sometimes though, “fadeout” (an apparent loss of gains as the student progresses through school) does occur. Studies documenting the phenomenon though, “often show better adult outcomes—better health, higher earnings, etc.,” than for students who didn’t have the full-day kindergarten experience. Additionally, there is no consistency across states for kindergarten programs. Quality matters and it really matters with our youngest students.  The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Center says the advantages of full-day kindergarten include: higher long-term achievement, fewer grade retentions, higher self-esteem and independence, and greater creativity.

One advantage of half-day kindergarten that matters to the Arizona Legislature is undoubtedly the fact that it costs less; $218 million less in 2010. Of course, the program cuts may not have been just about offsetting the state’s revenue shortfall. Cutting full-day kindergarten forced a choice on districts to either a) just offer half-day or b) trim other services (increase class sizes, eliminating art or music, cutting athletic directors) to pay for it. No matter which decision districts made, it hurt their ability to be fully successful. Not offering full-day kindergarten meant they might lose potential students who would likely have stayed through graduation. Since districts are funded on a per-student formula, this translates into lost funding. And I know there are those thinking “if the kid leaves, the cost of educating him leaves as well, so what’s the problem?” The problem is that districts have numerous fixed costs that continue to exist in full whether or not students attrit out (or never come in.) These include costs such as that for utilities, facility and grounds maintenance, and personnel.

Fortunately, there were others at the Board meeting who “get it.” Janiene Marlow, H.R. Director at Cave Creek USD, reiterated to the Board that “Full Day K programs are crucial.” Channel Powe, Balsz Elementary School District Board Member, also testified in support of full day kindergarten. Jack Smith, Yavapai County Board of Supervisors, spoke as a parent and discussed how kindergarten spring-boarded his children to success.

Of course, a move back to full-day kindergarten will cost significant monies. Kelley Murphy, from the Arizona Community Education Association (AZECA), stressed that in order to implement this in statute there must be a designated funding source. Remember that in his comments at the meeting, Senator Smith said, “the legislature will find money during the budget process.” I can guarantee you he is not talking about raising additional revenue to fund full-day kindergarten. I’m guessing he means the legislature will look at the K-12 budget to see what they can cut to fund it. Keep in mind that even after the Prop. 123 monies, Arizona is still 48th in the nation in K-12 per-pupil funding. Arizona’s GOP-led legislature is just not concerned and/or focused on truly improving the educational outcomes for the 80-plus percent of Arizonan students that attend our district schools. That’s why I’m only partially excited about the potential restoration of funding for full-day kindergarten, even though I think it is critical. It, like any other initiative we pursue in K-12 education, is not a silver bullet. It must be pursued as part of a comprehensive educational system. It must also be funded to a level that will help ensure a quality program. Junk in after all, produces junk out.

The hard truth is that as long as we accept mediocre support for our district schools, they will have a very hard time producing stellar results. The fact that some districts are excelling at the highest levels and most others are continuing to improve, is a testimony to the underpaid and undervalued but totally dedicated educational professionals in 230 community school districts around the state. They do it because they love the kids. Both they and the kids deserve much better.

Remember in November

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) just released a new report on states’ investments in their public schools. “Public investment in K-12 schools – crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity – has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade” reports the CBPP. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Arizona ranks 15th in the nation for the number of students enrolled in public K-12 schools, but 48th in per pupil spending, with state funding per pupil down 36.6%. In state dollars alone (per pupil), Arizona only provided 56.5% of the national average according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Public Education Finances: 2014 report released this year.

Greatly exacerbating the situation (especially moving forward) is the fact that Arizona is one of the five states having “enacted income tax rate cuts costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each year rather than restore education funding.” Nationwide, states made up 45% of their budget shortfalls between 2008 and 2012 with spending cuts and only 16% with taxes and fees. Governor Ducey has promised to cut income tax every year he is in office, continuing two decades of tax cuts that that will cost the state’s 2016 general fund $4 billion in revenue. He and the Arizona Legislature may blame the recession on Arizona’s budget woes, but “more than 90% of the decline in revenue resulted from tax reductions…the remainder is due to the recession. Adding to the problem is that the Federal education aid programs shrunk at the same time. Those cuts are critical given that one in four of Arizona’s children live in poverty and Federal assistance for high-poverty schools is down 8.3% since 2010. Federal spending for the education of disabled students is also down by 6.4%.

It should be no surprise, that Arizona has a huge teacher shortage and in fact, is ranked the third worst state in the nation to be a teacher. Arizona’s district schools started the school year with 2,041 teacher vacancies and four weeks into the school year 25 percent of those remained vacant and 22 percent more were filled by individuals not meeting standard teacher requirements. The CBPP reports, “While the number of public K-12 teachers and other school workers [across the nation] has fallen by 221,000 since 2008, the number of students has risen by 1,120,000. This translates to a national average for student-to-teacher ratio of 16:1 while Arizona’s is almost 23:1. In 2014, Arizona ranked fifth in the nation in annual population increase while fewer students were enrolling in teacher preparation programs and 23% of Arizona’s teachers will be eligible to retire by 2019. We are facing a crisis largely created by state lawmakers where districts are forced to make up for major state funding cuts by deleting positions; underpaying teachers; cutting back on professional development; combining classrooms; and using long-term, less-qualified substitutes. Research shows teacher quality is the most important school-based determinant of student success. For real achievement gains, recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers must be at the forefront of education policy, along with the funding that supports it.

Quality preschool and full-day kindergarten have been shown critical to improved outcomes throughout a child’s school years and life beyond, especially for those lower on the socio-economic scale. Arizona however, funds only half-day kindergarten and provides no support for preschool. One study of 15,000 children born between 1955 and 1985 showed that poor children whose schools received a 10% increase in per-pupil spending before they started school and maintained that increase over the 12 years of the students’ schooling, were 10% more likely to graduate from high school. They also were shown to have 10% in higher earnings and were 6% less likely to be poor as adults.

Proposition 123 provided $173 million per year through FY 2025, but the state is still the fifth highest in cuts (down 12.8%) in state-provided per pupil funding through 2017. Keep in mind please that Proposition 123 monies were largely provided by raiding the state trust lands fund, which exists to support stable financial resources for schools. It wasn’t new money, but funding already mandated by the people and adjudicated by the courts and then, it was only 70% of what was actually owed. Even so, it did provide a boost to district funding which is critical given that Arizona is one of roughly half of the states providing less per pupil than in 2008 and one of the only seven where the cuts are 10 percent or more. In fact, even with the Proposition 123 infusion, the CBPP reports that Arizona had a -.08% change in state formula funding per pupil. So, while one hand giveth (kind of), the other hand taketh away.

Of course, per-pupil funding isn’t the only kind of funding cut from our district budgets. Capital spending, that which is used to build new schools, renovate and expand facilities, and equip schools with more modern technologies, is also way down. Spending for capital requirements was down 37% across the nation between 2008 and 2014. In Arizona, the FY 2016 budget included cuts of $113,457,200 in district additional assistance (DAA) dollars (about $135 per student), when added to the prior year DAA cuts, equates to a total reduction of these funds by 83%. DAA monies are used for a combination of soft capital costs (classroom materials and supplies) and capital funding. As just one example, the State Facilities Board provided only two cents of every dollar (2%) of the statewide need for renovations and repairs between 2008 and 2012.

The good news is that almost three-fourths of Arizona voters say the state is spending too little on our K-12 public school students. Hopefully, you are one of them and you’ve already voted for pro-district education candidates, not those in favor of diverting taxpayer dollars to fund commercial schools. I say this not as a school choice “hater” (I do believe school choice has its place, it just shouldn’t be first place), but as a pure practical matter. Over 80% of Arizona’s students attend district schools and they deserve to have the vast majority of our resources and attention dedicated to ensure they succeed. We all need them to succeed not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because whether they are well educated or not, they are the future of our communities, our state and our nation. For all of us and those who come after us, I wish for a very bright future.

 

Partisan? You bet! My party is Public Education.

I am a big believer in the two-party system. Our system of government works best when all sides are heard and considered. That is most likely to happen when the power is balanced, forcing legislators to negotiate and compromise. Our founding fathers purposefully designed many checks and balances into our system and I believe our two-party system helps in that regard.

In Arizona, the Democrats must gain only two additional seats in the State Senate to reach parity with the Republicans and in my opinion that would be a very good thing. Then, our senators from both parties would be forced to work together in finding good compromises to solve the problems facing our state.

One of the biggest problems facing our state is the inadequate resources provided our district schools. Arizona is one of the nation’s leaders in promoting school choice and although 80-plus percent of our students choose district schools, resources continue to be siphoned away from these schools in favor of other options. Many of our legislators, largely the Democrats, get this. Several Republicans are also on board.

Friends of ASBA, a sister organization of the Arizona School Boards Association, publishes an annual voting record of our legislators. This “Friends of ASBA Educating Arizona” report shows how every Arizona legislator voted on high priority K-12 education bills in 2016. The bills are grouped into three focus areas: funding, vouchers and local control, and the voting record is based on whether the legislators voted with, or against the ASBA position.

I encourage you to click here for the report to get the entire story. As you go through the report, you’ll note 56 legislators received “extra credit” for their behind the scenes efforts on behalf of public education. This credit is noted by + signs and the maximum extra credit points awarded were +++. Below, I show the Republican legislators who voted with ASBA’s position more than two-thirds of the time. I’d like the percentages to be even higher, but 33 Republican legislators didn’t even have a score higher than 50%. I should note that four Democratic legislators, Rep Sally Ann Gonzales (57%), Rep Jennifer Benally (43%), Rep Albert Hale (57%), and Rep Juan Mendez (57%) did not meet my “two-thirds of the time voting with ASBA” threshold.

LD Senator % Representative % Representative %
1 Steve Pierce++ 67 Karen Fann+ 71 Noel Campbell 71
2 Christopher Ackerley++ 71
8 TJ Shope+ 71
15 Heather Carter++ 71
16 Doug Coleman++ 100
18 Jeff Dial++ 67 Jill Norgaard 63 Bob Robson++ 71
20 Paul Boyer++ 63
21 Rick Gray+ 63
28 Adam Driggs++ 89 Kate Brophy McGee++ 71

The legislators in the chart above have at times taken brave stances on behalf of our district school students. Those I’ve actually met with seemed sincerely intent on doing the right thing for our students. They have earned my respect.

It is never a good idea to be closed to the opinions and ideas of others, nor is it smart to vote straight party line without regard to the issues and how candidates lean on those issues. For incumbents, the voting record tells us where they stand on public education. For candidates who haven’t ever been elected, it is our duty to read and listen to what they say about where they stand. And oh by the way, it is not good enough for a candidate to say he/she is “for education.” If you want to be sure they support the efforts of the schools educating over 80 percent of our students, they must say they are “for public education.” Of course, this leaves the door open for them to be staunchly pro-charter, but at least there is a modicum of transparency and accountability for the taxpayer dollars provided charter schools unlike with private options.

No matter what problems you most want solved, there can be no doubt that the more our students are prepared to deal with them, the better off we will all be. In my opinion, locally elected, governing board-led, public school districts offer the best chance we have to ensure every student has every opportunity to succeed. That’s why I am passionately pro-public education and why that’s the “party” that most matters to me.

Four. Hundred. Thousand.

That’s how many of Arizona’s children live in poverty. 400,000 children who are likely food insecure, with a dim outlook for the future. Let’s face it. The American Dream is no longer the promise it once was. Yes, those who work very hard can still make something of themselves in our country, but it is no longer a given that a child, even one who really applies themselves, will be better off than his or her parents.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation publishes an annual Kids Count Databook that rates states in on how children fare in each of the 50 states. In the 2016 report, Arizona ranked:

  • 45th in overall child well-being
  • 39th in economic well-being
  • 44th in education
  • 45th in health
  • 46th in family and community

Not statistics to be proud of by any imagination. Not surprising either, since with one in five (1.26 million) living below the poverty line, Arizona is second to last in the nation, in front of only Mississippi.

Despite what the privatization pushers would have you believe, the number one problem facing our community district schools is poverty. As for those who would say, “they ought to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps” not only do you need boots to have bootstraps but how is pulling yourself up by your bootstraps technically even possible? And for those who say it is a parental responsibility to care for their children, I say absolutely! But, over one-third of the households in Arizona are single parent. Want to bet the vast majority of these households live in poverty?

I’m not saying that poor families can’t be good families. Far from it. What I am saying is that being poor makes everything else tougher to deal with. Those of us who are fortunate to live well above the poverty line can’t imagine the day-to-day challenges of being poor. Once, while running for political office, my wife took the SNAP Challenge. This required her to live for a week on a food budget of a little over $4 per day. (SNAP, an acronym for the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is also known as “food stamps.”) The challenge was, well, challenging, and that’s just one very small glimpse of what it means to be poor. For children, it can mean that the only meal they get each day is the one they get at school. That makes learning more difficult and illness more likely.

For the rest of us, it means missed opportunities and wasted resources.  This, because we will never know from where the next President, successful businessperson, literary genius, or incredible athlete will come. Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson all came from poor roots. Lebrun James and soccer star Pele grew up in poor families. Oprah, who grew up in extreme poverty, is the daughter of an unmarried teen. John Paul DeJoria (Paul Mitchell hair products and Patron tequila) lived in a foster home and spent time in an L.A. street gang. Andrew Carnegie, considered one of the largest benefactors of libraries and educational institutions across the country, worked in factories as a child and forced himself to sleep at night so he would forget his constant hunger. Yes, these people were probably special to start with, but they didn’t make it big all on their own. Which poor kids have we already written off that could have had similar stories if only we’d provided them the right support? And for those who might not be moved by thoughts of disadvantaged poor children or the missed opportunities surrounding them, I offer the sheer economics of this crisis.

“In the mid-1990s”, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris said in her recent TED talk, “a decade-long study of 17,500 adults (70 percent Caucasian and college educated) conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the CDC, found childhood trauma dramatically increased the risk for 7 out of 10 of the leading causes of death in the U.S. Depending on the amount of trauma experienced, those exposed had triple the risk of heart disease and lung cancer, 4-1/2 times the risk of depression, 12 times the risk of suicide ideality and a 20-year decrease in life expectancy. Almost 13 percent of the population has had significant exposure, yet 20-plus years later, doctors are still not trained in routine screening or treatment.

Children in foster care have generally had to deal with more than their share of trauma such as physical, sexual or emotional abuse; neglect; living with parents with drug and/or alcohol addiction; and much more. In Arizona, the state is seeing an alarmingly large increase in the number of children living in foster care due to abuse or neglect. “The rate grew by 87% between 2009 and 2015 and the number of children in foster care more than doubled in seven counties.” As of March of this year, there were 18,906 kids in out-of-home care, seven percent more than the 17,592 children from a year ago. By 2016, the number was more than 19,000. This, after Governor Ducey fired the head of the Department of Child Safety for systemic problems with that agency’s ability to protect children. The problems obviously still exist.

Arizona’s Children’s Action Alliance says there is “growing and unmanageable stress on families, the destruction of the safety net to help families before they are in crisis, and the lack of effective child welfare policies and practices to keep children safely at home. Resulting consequences include huge costs to taxpayers, an overwhelmed and unsustainable child protective services system, a shortage of foster families with children sleeping in offices and living in shelters, and life-changing trauma for thousands of children. Arizonans will bear the effects for many years to come, as children who have experienced foster care are far more likely to fail in school, become homeless, and suffer with poor mental and physical health.”

Providing the right support to help children grow into productive citizens is money in the bank. Prenatal care is less expensive than preschool and preschool is less expensive than prison. Ensuring much better outcomes, while ultimately saving taxpayer dollars, should be something everyone can get behind.

Just rearranging the deck chairs ain’t gonna cut it

Representing the AZSchools Now Coalition, Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year Christine Marsh and I recently attended and spoke at a Classrooms First Initiative Council meeting in Phoenix. The Coalition consists of the Arizona Associations of: Education, Business and Education, School Boards, Superintendents, and Parent and Teachers. Also part of the coalition are the Children’s Action Alliance, Valley Interfaith Project, and Support Our Schools AZ. It was formed post-Prop 123 to provide focus to reinvesting in public schools as a way to boost student achievement.

The Classrooms First Initiative Council was established by Governor Ducey in January 2015 and charged with modernizing the school finance formula to ensure adequate funding is available for teachers and classroom instruction. The first of the two main events of this latest meeting was a presentation by Expect More Arizona on the Education Progress Meter. This meter has been accepted by virtually every education group, numerous community and municipality organizations, and 26 major business entities. It measures Arizona’s progress in eight areas to include teacher pay, preschool enrollment, 3rd grade reading, 8th grade math, high school graduation, opportunity youth, college going, and post-secondary attainment.

The other main discussion was about the proposals submitted by education groups for the Council’s consideration. In speaking for the AZSchools Now proposal, I advocated for additional resources to attract and retain high quality teachers in light of the both the current shortage as well as the some 26,000 eligible for retirement starting in 2018. Not only is the shortage critical, but teacher turnover is disruptive and expensive, costing as much as $50,000 to find and contract a new one. ADE reports we have almost 93,000 certified teachers in Arizona, but only 67,000 of them are working in the profession. Many of those who left would love to still be teaching, but were forced to seek employment that would better support their families. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median Arizona elementary school teacher salary is $40,590 while the national median is $54,120. Starting salaries are much lower, often in the $30,000-per-year range.) Even so, one of the changes under consideration by the Council is to eliminate the Teacher Experience Index. As you might guess, this index helps keep experienced teachers in our AZ classrooms and the Coalition believes eliminating it will only exacerbate the problem. If we want to ensure high-quality education, we must have high-quality teachers and that can’t be done on the cheap. With fewer teachers entering the pipeline and over 26,000 eligible to retire by 2018, merely “rearranging the deck chairs on Titanic” I said, won’t do anything to keep this “boat from sinking.”

I also spoke about the Coalition’s recommendation to consider adding a B-weight for poverty to the school finance formula. This is critical because statewide, 58 percent of our K-12 students are eligible for free and reduced meals and many deal with a multitude of poverty related challenges at home, greatly affecting their preparedness to learn at school. That’s why the Coalition believes it is one of the most significant steps needed to make the school finance formula more equitable and fair. We know these students typically face barriers relating to transportation, housing, and levels of support in their communities and families for which additional resources are needed to help them achieve success.

Christine also made a case for additional funding, but her impassioned plea was focused on ensuring reasonable classroom sizes so that no students fall between the cracks. She told of average student loads for AZ high school teachers of 170 students and said that makes it tough for teachers to give each student the individualized attention they deserve. (The National Center for Education Statistics’ reports Arizona has 1.1 million K-12 students, and just 48,358 full-time teachers making our student-teacher ratio almost 23:1 compared to the national average of 16:1. According to WalletHub, only California and Utah are worse.)

She also pointed out that a future President of the United States is in a K-12 classroom somewhere, and current events highlight the importance of our getting this right. Stating that yes, salary is an important factor to encourage teachers to stay in their profession, Christine said it is also important that teachers feel they have what they need to really make a difference. And although she wanted to focus on the needs of students, not teachers, she noted the reality of workloads on the ability to do the job. Even if, she said, she only assigns three writing assignments per week to her 160 students, and each of those papers only takes five minutes to grade, that can amount to over 40 hours of grading time per week, and that takes place outside of the classroom. As if illustrating this point, after she spoke to the Council Christine resumed grading the stack of student papers she had brought with her.

Chris Thomas, Lead Council for the Arizona School Bards Association, said Arizona has one of the most equitable funding formulas in the nation, but is not adequately funding the formula. He highlighted the need for reinstating the cost analysis for special education funding as a way to ensure costs to provide service to these students are adequately funded while not pulling funding away from other programs. Chris also made the point that in considering a new funding formula, transparency should be ensured for the use of all public funds. Sarah Ellis, a Flagstaff Governing Board member, spoke during public comments, reiterating the need for locally controlled funding and the continuation of desegregation funding. For the Flagstaff Unified School District she said, the desegregation funds exceed that received from Prop. 123.

I was encouraged by the questions asked by members of the Council as well as the number of attendees in the audience. There was standing room only and attendees had come from all over the state to participate. I was pleased to hear some Council members voice their concerns that viable solutions to the finance formula would not be possible without additional resources, including the Chair, Jim Swanson. One member did note the reality of convincing the state legislature of this reality, but Swanson indicated he is ready to take on those who may not agree with the Council’s eventual recommendations.

Overall, I was encouraged by the meeting. Although I would have liked the membership of the Council to be more representative of the K-12 population in our state (majority Hispanic), I found them to be actively listening and serious about finding the best solutions. I am also very encouraged about the AZSchools Now coalition. One of the Coalition members, Support Our Schools AZ and its subsidiary the Arizona Parents Network, is an example of the grassroots efforts that has blossomed during and since the post-Prop 123 battle. What is especially important about this development is that it involves mostly parents who are naturally fierce advocates for their children.

One such fierce parent is Alana Brussin, whose My Turn” op-ed titled Tying school success to vouchers is a sham was recently published by the Arizona Republic. Her piece highlights the reasons community district schools are the overwhelming choice of Arizona families, in spite of the best efforts of state leaders and other school privatization advocates.

Just as Mothers Against Drunk Driving turned the tide on the public’s acceptance of drinking and driving, I’m confident our fierce parents can turn the tide on the assault on community district schools and ultimately the students they serve. Every child deserves every opportunity to succeed and when that happens, we all succeed. It really is that simple.

Educated Workforce = State Prosperity

Okay. Let me get this right. Daniel Scarpinato, Press Aide to Governor Doug Ducey says Arizona schools are the 4th worst in the nation because school choice siphons taxpayer dollars out of community (district) schools into private and parochial schools, leaving those community schools underresourced. Okay, those weren’t his exact words, but that is what he intimated. His intent was of course, to invalidate the WalletHub study because it only looked at our public schools and not private schools. So, he thinks the study is invalid because it ONLY pertains to 96 percent of Arizona’s K-12 students?

WalletHub looked at 17 key metrics and found that Arizona is: 49th for pupil to teacher ratio; near the bottom in average ACT score; and below average for low-income student high school graduation rate. Even though these types of rankings are nothing new for Arizona and, he doesn’t dispute the numbers, Scarpinato called the study “baloney.” Rather, he went on to deflect the blame by citing Arizona’s rapidly increasing population as part of the problem for low per-pupil funding and sidestepped whether this meant funding should be increased to keep up with that growth. He also dismissed the idea of halting corporate tax cuts. His justification – Arizona needs to remain competitive with other states in its efforts to cut corporate taxes. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) says “cutting taxes to capture private investment from other states is a race-to-the-bottom state economic development strategy that undermines the ability to invest in education.” We need only look at Kansas to see how this strategy works.

EPI research shows “income is higher in states where the workforce is well-educated and thus more productive.” There is, the Institute says, “a clear and strong correlation between the educational attainment of a state’s workforce and median wages in the state.” Those workers then pay more taxes to boost state budgets. The best companies know they need to go where they can get the kind of educated workforce they need, where their current employees will find good communities with high quality schools, and where the infrastructure can support their business model. That’s why states like Massachusetts (ranked #1) see education as an investment, not an expense.

Unfortunately, the AZ Legislature seems hell-bent on pushing the privatization of our community school system and will continue down this path until the voters boot them out of office. We need lawmakers who understand there can be no significant progress for our state over the long haul unless we ensure all our children are given the tools to grow and prosper. Community schools remain the schools of choice for the vast majority of our students and must be our first priority for state resources. Yes, school choice has its place in our overall educational system, but it shouldn’t be first place.

We Are the Ones Failing

The AZ Department of Education released AzMERIT test scores to districts this week and results show 1,400 third-graders did not meet the “Move On When Reading” (MOWR) cut score required by ARS 15-701. The law requires all third graders in Arizona to read proficiently at grade level or be retained, with three exceptions. The exceptions pertain to English Language Learners, students under evaluation for a special education (SPED) referral or severe reading impairment, and those on Individual Education Plans (IEP.) The law also provides for remedial strategies and once a student demonstrates reading proficiency via a district-administered assessment, they can be promoted to the next grade.

Although MOWR was signed into law in 2010 and enacted by the Legislature in 2012 with the appropriation of approx. $40 million annually, it wasn’t until the 2013-14 school year that the retention was implemented. That year, close to 650 third-graders were eligible to be retained, but less than one percent were. During the 2014-15 school year, data from the new AzMERIT was not expected to be available until after the start of the next school year, so no third-graders were held back.

There can be no doubt that the ability to read, the earlier the better, is critical for a student’s success. Studies show that children who cannot read at grade level by the start of fourth grade are four times less likely to graduate on time. Third graders who live in a poor family for at least a year are six and a half times less likely to graduate on time and have much higher risk for dropping out. “While it is an urban myth that prison population projections are based on the number of third graders that cannot read” –  high school dropouts were 63 times more likely to see the inside of prison walls than college graduates.

Social promotion, or “the practice of promoting a child to the next grade level regardless of skill mastery in the belief that it will promote self-esteem”, has numerous problems of its own. Among them are the potential for ill-educated students, providing parents a false sense of confidence, setting the bar low, and creating a false sense of accomplishment. While social promotion can help ensure students don’t drop out, the stark reality is that they’ll likely be no more prepared for a post-secondary education than if they had.

Retention of students though, is also very problematic. According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), as many as 15 percent of U.S. students repeat a grade each year, and 30 to 50 percent of students are retained at least once before ninth grade. Nineteen empirical studies from the 1990s compared retained students with those promoted. The results showed grade retention negatively impacted all areas of achievement, from reading to math and language, and socio-emotional adjustments such as peer relationships, self-esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance.

So, it is critical for students to be able to read by the third grade, social promotion is the wrong solution, and retention should be the very last resort. What then is the answer? As is often the case with complex problems, we pretty much know what we need to do, we just don’t either want to do it, or don’t have the political will to do it. New America, a centrist nonprofit think tank and civic enterprise, says the solution requires “a comprehensive approach to literacy including attention to a wide range of factors, including teacher preparation and professional development; early identification of struggling students and intervention to support their success; comprehensive and shared assessments; language-rich and engaging reading curricula; provision of pre-K and full-day kindergarten; and school-community-family partnerships.”

The school-community-family partnerships are every bit as important as the rest of the approach since we know literacy and language gaps start well before kindergarten.  Research has shown that children in families receiving public assistance hear as many as 30 million fewer words prior to entering kindergarten than their wealthier peers, putting them at an early disadvantage. Unfortunately, only 42 percent of four-year-olds and 15 percent of three-year-olds are served by public pre-K programs, including SPED and the federal Head Start program. Additionally, the quality of these programs varies significantly with most states requiring just a high school diploma for teachers of infants and toddlers.

New America published a report in 2015 called “From Crawling to Walking” which ranked states on birth to third-grade policies supporting strong readers. The report looked at seven policy areas influencing children’s literacy development: educators; standards, assessment and data; equitable funding; pre-K access and quality; full-day kindergarten access and quality; dual language learner supports; and third-grade reading laws. They then ranked states into three categories based on their progress toward achieving 65 policy indicators. Arizona was categorized in the “crawling” level, at 43rd in the nation. Some of the reasons were no requirement for specialized preparation in early childhood education (ECE) for administrators and ECE educators, pre-K programs not required to screen for dual language learners, and unfunded full-day kindergarten. This last item must carry much of the responsibility for Arizona’s 43rd ranking. In 2004, the state passed legislation creating funding for full-day kindergarten to increase availability, but in 2010, the Legislature eliminated the funding. This forced school districts to adapt by charging parents tuition for kindergarten, raising local property taxes, increasing class sizes, or reducing other areas of their budgets.

Unfortunately just like everything else today, it seems that early childhood education has been politicized beyond the ability to effectively solve the problem. The Republican Party’s platform committee recently added language that opposes public prekindergarten. Of the decision, one of the members of the committee said the party opposes pre-K because it “inserts the state in the family relationship in the very early stages of a child’s life.” This goes right to the heart of the Conservative belief that parents are responsible for what ails a child and they alone have responsibility to fix it. Democrats want proper funding and support to get the job done even if the parents don’t do it.

The primary argument against retention is that in most cases it doesn’t prove motivational to the student. There are multiple reasons for this but in the end, the failure to read at grade-level isn’t primarily the student’s fault. Sure they must accept some of the responsibility, but teachers, school administrators, parents, and district and state officials all share a large part of the responsibility.

A kindergarten teacher I know recently said: “It seems that they [the state] are leaving the school districts responsible for the fallout, without offering solutions, support, or resources. It’s like it’s your problem, now deal with it and let us hold you accountable if you don’t.” One of my Facebook friends phrased it another way: They starve the horse, and when he can’t pull the loaded wagon up the hill, they beat him to death and then pin the blame on him.

Ultimately, what makes the failure of the 1,400 students not meeting the cut score on AzMERIT so unacceptable is that we collectively know what to do to help them. No, the solutions aren’t simple, easy or cheap to implement, but let’s please not pretend we don’t know what they are. These kids may have “failed” the test, but we are failing them.

Prop 123 deal was hard-fought

In a recent AZ Daily Star op-ed, former educator and school board member Jim Christ compared the Old Testament story of Esau trading his inheritance for a bowl of lentil soup as an example of a “beyond foolish” bargain, to Prop. 123. If Esau was starving and did not know where his next meal would come from, it might not have been such a foolish bargain.

Arizona ranks 50th in the nation on adjusted per pupil expenditure ($4,047 less than, or 31 percent below, the national average.) Even if Prop 123 passes, it won’t move us out of our current place in education funding, that’s how far behind we are. Our state also ranks 49th for median teacher’s salaries, so it should be no surprise that 49 percent of our teachers report frozen salaries as the top reason for leaving. We have a huge teacher shortage not because we don’t have enough certified teachers in the state, but because they can’t feed their families on a teacher’s salary.

Christ also said the Arizona Education Association (AEA) and the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA)“caved in” to coercion by Gov. Ducey and Senate President Andy Biggs. That is an incredibly simplistic view of both a lengthy court battle and complicated negotiations. The truth is, had the AEA and ASBA and other plaintiffs not held the lawsuit defendants “feet to the fire”, they likely would never have agreed to pay anything. After all, even though the inflation funding mandate was found in 2013 to be voter protected by the Arizona Supreme Court, and Superior Court Judge Cooper ordered a reset of the base level, no court has ordered a payment of the back pay. The plaintiffs negotiated hard to get 70 percent of the total amount owed. They also drove 1) inflation funding preserved in perpetuity, 2) no strings attached to the use of the money and 3) the ability for districts to carryover the funds to FY 2016/2017 (important since the monies will reach districts as soon as June 2016), all of which are significant to districts’ successes.

Yes, there are contingencies that have been put in place to account for a severe downturn in the state economy, but the base level funding reset is protected regardless. As for the increased withdrawals from the state land trust, it is hardly the “plundering” Christ describes. Even after 10 years of increased withdrawals, the trust will still be worth a minimum of $6.1 billion, or $1.1 billion more than it is today. Would it have been worth more without the increase? Yes, but to what end? The money is for education and enough will be there in the future. Today’s 8th graders though, who have never been in fully funded classrooms, will have been shortchanged during their entire K-12 experience. This, because if Prop 123 fails, estimates are the lawsuit will continue at least 3-5 more years, without any guarantees of outcome. It is also noteworthy, that only 55-60 percent of the funding comes from the state land trust, the rest will be drawn from the state general fund.

We can wish the world was different, but the plain truth is GOP controls Arizona’s government and they have proven to not be supportive of locally controlled, community based, public education. They’ve also proven they are not inclined to either follow the rule of law, or the people’s wishes. In such an environment, I believe the inflation funding lawsuit plaintiffs (David to the state’s Goliath) did the best they could to aim their “rock” so it would produce the best result. If we want the world to be different, we must do more than wish for it to be so. We must ALL vote to elect pro-public education candidates who realize education is an investment, not an expense and that the best way to provide all students equity in opportunity is to ensure a well-funded, locally-controlled, fully accountable and transparent, truly “public” system of education.

 

“Someone to Shine Our Shoes”

In a recent article titled “Chartered Cruise” on knpr.org, the author Hugh Jackson wrote: “Today’s charter industry, much like Nevada’s voucher plan, reflects a chronic civic defeatism. Echoing the perverse social Darwinism of more than a century ago, faith in free-market education is surrender to pessimism. Society really isn’t incapable of providing a fair educational opportunity to every citizen. Some people are doomed to fail, that’s just the way it is, so best to segregate those with promise, the achievers, in separate schools. As for everyone else, well, too bad for them.” Of course, this attitude isn’t confined to only Nevada; I have a real life example of it right here in Arizona. Three or so years ago, an acquaintance of mine asked an Arizona Senator whether or not he supported public education. He replied, “of course I do, we need someone to shine our shoes.”

It’s bad enough the Senator thought this, let alone that he said it out loud to a public education advocate. That says as much about the voter contempt some of our lawmakers hold (especially when the voter is from a different party) as it does what they think of public education. As the primary water carrier for the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC), the Arizona Legislature has led the nation in efforts to offer school choice options. Proponents tout school choice as the way to help disadvantaged children, but truth is, they’ve already written these children off. Instead, school choice is really about resegregation (the highest we’ve seen since the mid 1960s) and profiteering.

The school choice and education privatization movement gives me great pause because:

  1. The vast majority of our students (85%) are attending significantly underfunded district schools;
  2. Taxpayer dollars are increasingly being siphoned off to profiteers with very little (if any) accountability and transparency;
  3. The claim of school choice proponents that school choice provides much better results, either isn’t backed up by facts, or is an oranges and pineapple comparison;
  4. Voucher and charter schools actually provide parents less choice than district schools.

Allow me to explain. By now, most Arizonans probably know our state is 48th in per pupil funding. Even if the $3.5 billion infusion from Prop 123 is approved by voters this month, it won’t move us from 48th place in overall per pupil funding. To move up just one notch (above Oklahoma), we’d have to give out districts twice that much. That’s how far behind Arizona is.

As for the lack of accountability and transparency in Arizona’s school choice programs, for-profit companies dominate the charter school movement.  These companies do not have school boards, let alone locally elected boards and are not required to disclose the details of their business operations. As for private schools that take Empowerment Scholarship Account (voucher) or Student Tuition Organization tax credit dollars, there is no way for taxpayers to determine funding efficacy. Private school students are not required to take state assessments nor provide any academic results. Neither are private schools required to disclose any information regarding their business operations.

Then, there’s the apple and oranges comparison. Irrespective of the law requiring charter schools to accept all students, it is a well documented fact that most manage to steer clear of special needs and English language learning students and that they manage to attrit (at incredibly high rates) students of color or those on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Of course, when these students return to the district schools, it is often after the 100th day of the school year, when the average daily attendance has been calculated and the charter school has cemented the funding for the year for that student. The district school is forced to absorb that same student for the rest of the year with no compensation.

Finally, district schools are run by locally elected governing boards that are accountable to the community. School district residents have the right to be present at board meetings and have their voice heard. They also have a right to know how their tax money is spent. Charters and private schools are run by executive boards not accountable and often not responsive to parents. If you aren’t happy with the way they are being run, your only recourse is to withdraw your child.

The myth perpetuated by those bent on destroying pubic district education is that district schools are failing and that privatization in various forms is the answer. The reality says that school choice will never be the answer for the vast majority. The evidence also shows despite charters and private schools being much more selective of their students, most charters and almost all cyber charters do worse than their district schools. We don’t really know how private schools do since they aren’t required to provide any information about results.

The movement to privatize public education is straight from the GOP playbook on reducing government. As President Reagan said in his first inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” That might have been a good sound bite for the right, but I believe concentrated, unchecked power is the problem. Our system works best when we have a balance of power that ensures all sides are heard and produces compromises to come up with the best possible solution. It also works best when government provides for the public good and checks and balances are put in place to ensure efficiencies and effectiveness of both the public and private sectors where taxpayer dollars are involved. Those checks and balances are lacking in school choice options and taxpayers are paying the price. Examples abound of virtual (on-line) school scams, greedy charter school operators, and even illegal purchases with voucher dollars. No, district schools are not entirely immune from fraud, but at least they have locally elected school boards responsible to the taxpayer for oversight and the state conducts annual audits. Neither of these happens when taxpayer dollars fund school choice options.

The original intent of charter schools was to provide teachers greater flexibility to experiment with new ways to educate students. Charters were not meant to compete with or replace district schools, but rather complement them. Now, charters and vouchers have become a way for state legislatures to deflect their responsibility to provide a quality public education for all. When funding follows the child, it becomes the parent’s responsibility to ensure a quality education. School choice also allows our lawmakers to obfuscate the real problem, poverty and all the challenges it brings to our district schools.  Of course, the focus on school choice creates demand which causes funding loss in districts, making it harder for them to excel and reinforces the message that they are failing. The truth is, that despite significant funding shortfalls, severe teacher shortages and crumbling infrastructure, our district schools continue to do well. It makes one wonder what miracles could be achieved if they received the funding and support currently being siphoned off to charters and private schools.

The one thing I know for sure is that until we elect new pro-public education candidates, nothing is going to change. We will continue to see efforts to take the brakes off vouchers, create laws more favorable to charter schools, and attempts to de-professionalize the teaching profession. We have the power to create change; the only question that remains is do we have the will? Prop 123 has raised the level of attention to the challenges of our district schools. Many have been vocal on both sides of the issue. Let’s come together on May 19th at 4 pm for a Pro-Public Education Rally to tell our Legislature that enough is enough, we are done with them short-changing our kids and our state’s future! #ItStartsNow #YouPlusOne #RememberInNovember